So, you just finished paying for your part of college and paying your lawyer for filing a contempt against your ex for not paying her half and your son, a freshman in college three states away, calls and tells you that he wants to drop out. Welcome to stress city! The following thoughts from a therapist with a freshman in college might help you calm down.
When Your Child Wants to Come Home from College:
A therapist’s Perspective
Jennifer Webbe Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, CDM
As a mother of a college freshman, therapist Jennifer Webbe Van Luven has to admit that she may be more in tune to the dynamics of the conversations with a college freshman being “unhappy” and talking about leaving college before it has really begun. Here are her thoughts.
College kids today find it really easy to call it quits and move back home and, alarmingly, many parents allow them. There are several reasons for why this happens. Do today’s youth need instant gratification? Is this generation just “entitled?” Have we just not given them the tools to confidently fly the coop? Or did we parents enable this batch of kids to the point that they lack the independence and skills to make it on their own?
Dissatisfaction with the college experience at the end of the first semester is common. In fact, some national studies suggest that one third of college students do not return for their sophomore year of college, though there is little data regarding how many of those students leave at the midpoint of their first year. However, both college personnel and first year students know that there are many students who begin college that will not be back for the second semester.
There are good days and bad days for everyone, of course, and college students are no different. All parents hope that their college students will have more good days than bad. But sometimes, a college student may hit a string of bad days or seem particularly unhappy with their college experience. This is one of those times when parents feel most helpless. In some ways, they are. The student may lack the ability to work through the situation alone.
Many of today’s kids come from a place of entitlement and feel as if they deserve and require instant gratification. They move into a dorm room that is less than plush and definitely does not resemble the comforts of home. They extensively decorate and try to settle in to their new residence. As much as they (and we try), it will never be home. Mom is not in the kitchen making their favorite meal, clean towels are not in their community bathroom and they are living with a complete stranger. Our college kids think that they will be settled instantly, when we know that it takes time, patience and a lot of social networking. This is something most didn’t really have to do in high school. As parents, it is difficult to allow them to be uncomfortable and to work through the process on their own, but it is important to do so.
Kids today have a difficult time “fending for themselves.” This is due in part by the generation of parents who coddled and hovered during those teenage years. Many of kids did not learn the skills they need to be independent and spread their wings when they get to college. Parents have always rushed to their child’s aid with teachers, coaches and homework assignments. Now, living away from home and not having that helicopter parent leaves many college students flailing in the wind. This also contributes to the feelings of loneliness and helplessness.
Your college-aged child needs to have a sense of belonging on “fitting in” on campus. Working or being off campus can inhibit that feeling. Many students who spend a significant numbers of hours off campus (twenty hours a week or more, depending on the child), either due to work or outside activities, often report feeling less satisfied with their college experience, most likely because they feel – and in fact are – less connected.
Social isolation also makes a big impact. Students who feel alone are obviously unhappier. Even on a very large campus, it is possible for your student to feel isolated from others. These students need to be encouraged to join activities such as an intramural sport, Greek life or campus government. In many cases, student dissatisfaction stems less from academic programs, residence hall conditions, or activities than from feelings of connection and fit. Encourage your child to do all that he or she can to find and connect with others.
When a college student is discussing a return home, one of the first and most important things that parents need to assess is how firm the decision is. Is it an absolute commitment to not return, or is she just floating the idea to measure your reaction and invite a discussion and perhaps your advice? Your responsibility is less to dictate a course of action and more to help explore the student’s own feelings, abilities, and options. Whatever the decision is in the end, your student must be comfortable with and committed to it.
Some things to do as parents:
- Listen. Take time just to hear what your college student has to say and reflect his or her thoughts back. They may just need you to be a sympathetic ear.
- Help your child realize that they are not alone or a singular failure. Many students feel the same way at various points in their college career. Although he or she may be unhappy, understanding that this is a normal phase may help put things in perspective.
- Help them determine the validity of their complaints. Are their expectations realistic? Is their problem chronic or a just a one-time issue?
- Insist on honesty. Insist that your student be honest both with you and with him or herself. Don’t let them make excuses. Don’t let them gloss over real issues. Help them take a realistic look at the situation and their place in it.
- Encourage time and patience. Often issues or situations just need time to run their course. If your college student is unhappy at the midpoint of a first semester and talks about transferring or dropping out, try to insist that they finish the year. A second semester is often very different. Giving the first college experience a chance may be all that is needed. Countless students talk about transfer during that first semester and wouldn’t consider leaving their school by the end of that first year.
- Help your student reflect on their actions and attitude. What are they doing to change, correct or improve the situation? Have they made an effort to connect or talk to someone on campus or change their approach to the people around them? Help them think about whether they are working to improve the situation or deluding themselves into thinking they are (known as magical thinking, which we as adults know rarely works).
- Rather than just waiting it out, help your student make a plan of attack. Taking action, even in baby steps, will help your student feel and actually be empowered and in control.
- If your student is considering a transfer, encourage them consider whether they will simply be taking their problems with them to the new place. Are the issues truly with the school or really with themselves? Realistically, what would be different somewhere else and why?
- Help your student think about satisfied and happy students on campus whom they know. What is it about those happier students that make them happy? What are they doing differently? They are at the same place and are having a better experience. Why? Is there anything that they are doing that that your student might try?
- Be certain not to set your student up with unrealistic expectations. Many of us, as college parents, may be guilty of telling our students “these are the best years of your life!” They may not be. Help your student realize that there will be some wonderful experiences, but there will also be some lows. College is about hard work, meeting new people (not all of whom your student will like), navigating a new world, and learning independence and responsibility. These issues can make demands on students that may, at times, seem overwhelming.
- Lastly, consider whether this college or university was really your child’s choice, or yours. Many of today’s parents pressure their children into making the college choice that is the most appealing to the parent, rather than that which feels right to the child. The same can be said for college major, dormitory, and even first semester courses. If your college student never wanted to attend the institution where they are, unhappiness there may be a sign that they need to make a change to the choice that is right for them.
The college experience is a roller coaster for most parents and students. The good times are especially exhilarating and the lows are particularly deep. The student who is prepared for the emotional changes will better weather those changes. Although, as a parent, you cannot change the experiences, you can help your student learn from, value, and grow through the college years.
Jennifer Webbe VanLuven received her Master of Social Work from Saint Louis University with a concentration in family systems and law. Jennifer provides private therapy dealing with adult issues, depression, anxiety, marital and relationship issues, as well as adolescent development/ behavioral issues.
Jennifer has extensive experience in family law and court room testifying. She assists couples in a peaceful resolution, where continued communication is imperative for raising healthy children. Along with private therapy services, Jennifer provides services to families who are in the midst of transition, as a Parent Coordinator, Co-Parent Counselor, Custody Evaluator and a Divorce Consultant.